10:00 AM. Sunday school. The words to the song of the day are written in permanent maker on oak tag and placed on an easel for all to follow along. Mrs. Breyer In a dark brown perm, Coke bottle glasses and a green print dress is belting out the lyrics sung to the tune of “Bringing in the Sheaves.”
There were twelve disciples Jesus called to help him:
James his brother John
James the son of Alphaeus
He has called us too. He has called us too. We are his disciples. I am one and you. He has called us too. He has called us too. We are his disciples and there’s work to do.
12:00 PM. Home to Sunday dinner—always a roast set on a timer with potatoes, always mashed, plus a green vegetable and molded Jello salad. Always with Grandmother Carey sitting at the end of the table where Mommy usually sits. Grandmother Carey always in a natty suit with a silk shirt and size 4 ½ matching pumps in natural, navy, or black depending on the color of her outfit. Then finally, after asking to be excused, out the door to play.
By 7:00 PM we are usually reassembled, without Grandmother Carey, around the coffee table in the living room for a snack supper in front of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. Tonight there is the usual platter of celery sticks and banana slices slathered with peanut butter, Triscuits capped with Cracker Barrel, Ritz crackers sprayed with Cheez Whiz, and a glass of ginger ale. But Grandmother is still with us, sitting in her rocker by the fireplace. And just as Tinker Bell waves her magic wand above the castle, Daddy turns off the TV. Something is horribly wrong.
I’ve felt it all day. The Sunday school basement so clammy and damp. The sun not shinning, but so hot that even swinging on Helen Thompson’s big swing couldn’t cool me off. Out the window the sky is the same color as my healing black eyes. The sick yellowy purple presses closer and closer to the horizon until I feel the breath being sucked out of the room.
Daddy takes my hand and leads Bruce, Grandmother, and I past the front windows where leaves are plastered to the screen, towards the kitchen where Mommy leaves the sink full of dirty dishes to join us, through the den where the pages to the First National calendar flip through all twelve months in twelve seconds and pull the thumb tack right out of the wall. Daddy stands at the top of the basement stairs until we are all secure in the rec room, separated from the outside windows in his workshop and Mommy’s laundry by knotty pine paneling. Before he pulls the door closed, I see the papers on his desk take flight like wild, white birds. Then the lights go out. Daddy clicks on his big aluminum flashlight. Grandmother perches on the edge of the black vinyl couch between me and Bruce. Mommy and Daddy find their way to the wicker chairs on either side of the bookcase loaded with a hundred pounds of National Geographics. Shadows play against our faces, as we wait.
It seems like only a moment, but when we go back upstairs, the world as I knew it is gone. Our woodsy backyard is a tangle of giant pick-up sticks. The tallest oaks toppled. Their smallest root hairs ripped from the earth. Red maples snapped in half. Birches bent to the ground. My tree fort has vanished. Across the street, the Diffendorf’s roof is missing. Mr. Diffendorf’s motorboat is in the Mulligan’s sandbox rolled on its side. Bentley Road is impassable, crisscrossed with at least a dozen tree trunks. At the far end of the street Mr. and Mrs. Snell open their front door and stand on their stoop, their hands on Peter’s shoulders. Mr. Thompson stands by his gladiolas crushed by fallen branches. Mr. Mulligan, chain saw in hand, opens his garage door, and all five little Mulligans pour into the yard. And so it begins, the block party prompted by disaster. Every father on the street, except Howard Tuthill, the Channel Six weather man, is in his khaki work pants buzzing through branches as kids haul them away to make forts and nests like feral animals.
The road is cleared before the September sun goes down, and Daddy loads us all in the black Ford station wagon. We drive down River Road where Howard reports the worst damage was done. Low along the banks of the Mohawk, we witness the power of the winds. A wide serpentine swath of forest is flattened, mowed down like a field of wheat. Giant willows, with roots deep in bottom land, harvested like blades of grass. Where once there were acre upon acre of swamp maples and skunk cabbage, nothing is left standing, nothing too big to fall. Daddy says tornados are like that, brutal yet specific in their destruction.
Monday morning during show and tell, Miss La Fontaine asks us to tell our stories about the storm. Betsy Greenleaf says her horse barn is okay and so is her filly, Daylight. I say my tree fort is nowhere to be found, but I took Fritz, my cinnamon bear, to the basement and he is fine. Miss LaFontaine concludes with the fact that Butch Labrie will be absent until further notice. She’s received word that he’s moved in with his aunt and uncle in Rotterdam while the damage to his house is repaired. I know where the school bus drops Butch off on River Road, and his house needed fixing before the tornado. I’d be happy to live with my Aunt and Uncle and my cousin Donna and not go to school!
At six, how shielded I am from the adult world’s cyclonic distress. I have no understanding that bringing in the sheaves means that wheat must first be cut down, that harvest always requires destruction, uprooting, especially the harvest of souls. But my Daddy, my defender has proved capable of turning a deadly tornado into a lesson of undying love, leading me away from danger I wasn’t even aware of. His love nailed to my heart in readiness to receive the love of Christ nailed to a cross. How many trees must fall to make the sturdy oak tag of a disciple?